Monday, July 28, 2014

Desert Rebels Against Dystopia

"Good News,” by Edward Abbey, 1980

Abbey is the desert anarchist who wrote while working as a park ranger around the Grand Canyon.  His fiction is movie-like, featuring close escapes, somewhat cartoon villains and the struggle against industrialism gone crazy.  As he puts it, it is about ultimately the ‘oldest civil war, that between the country and the city.’  Good News” is a combination of “Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Larry McMurtry westerns like “Lonesome Dove,” and “The Road Warrior.” It is a post-apocalyptic look at the west after the collapse of industrial capitalism, centered on a city wasteland, called Phoenix.  The book is prescient in its descriptions and has aged well.  For instance, Abbey identifies the U.S. as a former corporate oligarchy before its fall. 

A catastrophe has destroyed the United States, leaving broken-down cars, empty malls, shuttered stores and an absent government. (And it wasn’t the 2008 financial crash!)  In its place are the remnants of the frightened citizenry and a megalomaniacal dictator called “The Chief” who wants to not only reconstitute the United States with his army of 2000+, and conquer the rest of the world next, but go on to the planets and the universe, where he will meet his ‘God.’  He plans to march east and occupy Washington D.C.  This is a country, by the way, that has almost no fuel left, which must be carried in massive tanker trucks.  So, monomaniacal times 3.  The Chief lives in a steel and glass skyscraper run by diesel generators in the middle of the smoking ruin of Phoenix, sort of like Sauron’s tower.  The skyscraper here has come to symbolize late-stage capitalism, like a pyramid shining out of the past.

Why apocalyptic disasters do not have clear causes is a mystery.  Book or film cannot name what actually happened.  Nuclear war?  Other kinds of wars? Environmental catastrophe or global warming?  Economic collapse?  The end of resources?  The seizure of power by a fascistic rich class?  All you get are crappy hints. This shows either cowardice or cluelessness, but in this case, Abbey is neither.  Abbey clearly says that something about industrialism led it to a dead end – a lack of food as the land was destroyed by industrial 'progress.’  He is a deep ecologist, and posits a rural, agrarian existence based on small landholdings as the counter-point to industrial society of any kind. The “state” is the prime enemy, as in most anarchist fiction.  

The struggle features an old cowpoke and a Hopi shaman on horse-back, an impulsive young man, several tough, good-hearted women and an anarchist guerilla leader against The Chief, his sadistic motor-cycle thugs, his chosen #2 and various sad military lackeys.  One of the motorcycle cops, Brock, is a relentless killer, torturer and rapist, who rides with a brutal Apache.  The Chief knows he is a torturer, but says, prematurely channeling George Bush, that people like Brock allow the ‘Chiefs’ of the world to have ‘clean hands.’  Brock is eventually dealt with … using magic.  Resorting to magic, especially in a literary work, indicates that even the likes of Abbey are impotent before vicious violence. 

Abbey includes a sub-story involving the old cowboy, Burns, looking for his long lost son, who turns out to be the Chief’s #2, Barnes.  This search does not go well. The anarchist guerrillas, who shout “Viva la Libertad” and “Tierra o Muerte” before being hung (shades of the Spanish Civil War…) are led by a professor named Rodack, and are mostly students, some Native Americans and Chicanos.  Portraying your anarchist guerrillas as mostly young students might be a weak point.  Bad pop Muzak plays throughout the Tower and also during the executions on “Unity Square,” which seems named after someplace in Assad’s Syria.  In contrast, a frustrated classical piano player remembers Beethoven and Bach while being forced to play Dylan in a bar.  Abbey, in laughable detail, names all the closed shops that line the weed-grown streets when the collapse happened circa 1984 (!) – Victoria’s Secret, Holiday Inn, B. Dalton, 7-11, McDonalds, Checker Auto Parts, Sambos, Denny’s, Food Giant, Odyssey Records and Tapes, etc.  The head of the military bordello describes the wonders of the vanished civilization to one of her new charges – eating all the time, driving everywhere, dressing in nice clothes, air-conditioning, entertainment, vacations, the Pentagon, drugs for every problem, power plants…

Abbey understood the problems of western capitalism even in 1980, before the recent extreme take-off of inequality and corporatism.  His analysis blames all of industrial society.  Doing this he is unable to separate out the role capital plays with the role ‘the city’ or ‘the state’ or ‘industry’ play in that kind of economy, where they become key and oppressive aspects of capitalist development.  Take the city. The growth of massive cities across the world is an outcome of the concentration of capital, as monopoly destroys agrarian land by ownership and with chemically-enhanced export mono-crops.  The concentration of people mimics the concentration of wealth. Present Phoenix, like Vegas and even Los Angeles, is itself at risk, slated for destruction through lack of water, increased fires, an influx of climate refugees and global heat waves from runaway climate change.  Who builds a massive city in the middle of a desert? Only capital accumulation and lack of planning would lead to something like this.  Abbey is always a rollicking good read.  He refused to remove politics from his literature, unlike the approved writers of purely aesthetic fiction, and hence rises above them.

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic film and fiction - “The Road,”The Hunger Games,” “Blade Runner or "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” "World War Z," and "Cloud Atlas"  are reviewed below.  The Monkey-Wrench Gang” by Abbey is also reviewed.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

Red Frog
July 28, 2014

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